Couples hoping to conceive using in vitro fertilization (IVF) can double their chances of conception by complementing modern fertility treatments with the centuries-old practice of acupuncture, according to Dr. John Zhang, a pioneer of minimally invasive fertility care and founder of the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City.
Acupuncture involves inserting small needles into a patient's skin to alleviate pain or treat physical, mental or emotional conditions. Originating in ancient China, it is now widely used throughout the world.
"There are many ways that acupuncture enhances fertility," Zhang says. "It increases blood flow to the reproductive organs, reduces stress hormones that interfere with follicle production and egg/sperm quality, [and] it calms the uterus before and after embryo transfer. It assists in follicle development, and it improves sperm quality and count."
The needles are inserted at specific points on the body, called acupoints. When the acupoints are stimulated, practitioners say, they have an influence on the internal organs they are correlated with and send signals to the brain to produce a variety of effects.
Zhang says that when certain well-known gynecological acupoints are stimulated, they tell the brain to regulate estrogen and progesterone levels. When local acupoints are used in the lower belly or pelvic region, blood flow is stimulated and a rich combination of blood, oxygen and nutrients is supplied to the area.
Zhang recommends seven to 10 acupuncture sessions to achieve a therapeutic effect.
"It always depends on the patient," Zhang says. "But in general, one should come for two treatments per week during the stimulation phase, a treatment catered to the time of retrieval; two treatments on the day of embryo transfer; and a treatment within the implantation period.
Zhang says acupuncture can also help hopeful parents well before they start the IVF process.
"It is also helpful if the patient and her partner receive weekly treatment prior to the IVF cycle for a minimum of two to four weeks," he says. "In an ideal world, she would start receiving treatment three to six months before trying to conceive."
Though acupuncture is considered safe before and during pregnancy, a few precautions need to be taken during the IVF process.
"There are acupoints that are prohibited in the time just after implantation," Zhang says. "Generally, you wouldn't want any needles below the belly button during the week before you get your results. Other areas of the body are fine."